Onyx: A Star Trek-like communication badge solution in search of a problem

Wearable device lets you talk to others at the press of a button.

Onyx Orion Labs communication badge

The Onyx device, a wearable badge, provides instant voice communication via Bluetooth to your smartphone.

Credit: Orion Labs

Fans of Star Trek know that its communicator device was iconic. Whether it was Captain Kirk on the original series asking Scotty for a beam-up (he never actually did say, “Beam me up, Scotty”), or Captain Picard tapping on his Starfleet insignia badge asking for a status report from Engineering, this was the way that instant voice communication would work in “the future.”

Many devices seen on these shows have evolved into real-life products. While the communicator that Kirk used evolved into the flip-phone (which then evolved into the smartphone), the badge that Picard wore hasn’t hit the mainstream. Over the years I’ve seen a few products attempt to recreate this device (one company had success deploying a badge-like system via Wi-Fi, geared towards hospital doctors and nurses), but there hasn’t been a popular badge-like device.

It’s possible that the Onyx device ($250 for a two-pack, or $130 for one) will make some strides in that direction. The device, made by Orion Labs, is a small, circular badge with a metal clip that can attach to your clothing. It pairs via Bluetooth to an existing smartphone (iOS or Android), and then you use the Orion app to indicate which contacts you’d like to have the Onyx badge speak with. If you’re thinking about the path that the system takes, it’s Badge via Bluetooth to the phone app, then phone to other phone via LTE or Wi-Fi, then phone via Bluetooth to the second Onyx badge.

 Communication via the badges is much like you’d use if you’ve ever used a walkie-talkie, one of those old Nextel push-to-talk phones or an app like Voxer (or even the voice-text feature found in most phones now). You push and hold the badge, start talking, then release, which sends the message to the person the app is connecting with. After they receive the message, they push their badge and talk back with you. It’s semi-instant communication - not like a phone call, but rather the previously mentioned walkie-talkie or push-to-talk methods.

 Here’s where the Onyx is different from those methods. While you need a phone for the app to work, you don’t need to hold it in your hand. The phone can stay in your pocket, a bag or on the car seat next to you. Activating the system involves touching the badge button, so you just need to have that somewhere near your fingers (heck, pin it to your Starfleet uniform so you can act just like Captain Picard).

Onyx style color options Orion Labs Orion Labs

Onyx badges come in a variety of colors.

 Adding multiple Onyx badges to the mix makes the device even more interesting. The app allows you to communicate with multiple users in a one-to-many scenario, so you can use this with teams of people (although it’s unclear about any order of preference given to the responders from the side of “many”). This may be an easier way for quick updates instead of trying to schedule a conference call and deal with all of those headaches.

 Another nice feature is silent mode - you can disable the instant voice from happening by turning the knob on the badge. Because you really don’t want to be in a board meeting or the bathroom and have your spouse’s (or worse, your kids) voice suddenly erupt through the badge.

 While the badges have that Star Trek look and feel, I’m not sure if I’d wear one all day long. I’d probably clip it to my pants or shirt pocket, rather than try to wear it like a brooch. Then again, you sort of need it close to your head area in order for the system to hear your voice - especially in noisy environments.

 In my tests, the device works as advertised and I didn’t have any problems in getting the badges to talk with the phone, apps, and setting it up to talk with the second badge. The biggest challenge for Orion Labs is convincing people that they need the device. As I mentioned before, smartphones have apps that can do push-to-talk (including voice text messaging). The device’s key advantage is that you don’t have to hold onto your phone, but Bluetooth headsets also can solve that issue. Other marketing images for the device show a cyclist attaching the badge to his shirt, but not showing you where he's placed his phone.

Apart from the geek factor of these devices being Star Trekkian, it’s hard to see more scenarios where the Onyx would be miles ahead of other current processes or devices that people use to communicate with each other.

Grade: 3.5 stars (out of five)

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